In the early 1830s, a young man went to sea, hoping to make his
A Presbyterian by birth, he read his Bible each night in his shipboard
hammock, and was haunted by a verse in the fourth chapter of Proverbs:
“Wisdom is the principal thing: Therefore, get wisdom: and with all thy getting, get understanding.”
Wealth, the youth piously decided, was nothing without this special seasoning. But where was such a combination to be found?
Presently his ship sailed into the harbor of Nantucket Island, off the Massachusetts coast. Nantucket was then a wealthy and vibrant community, built and largely populated by members of the Religious Society of Friends, or Quakers.
As he walked the bustling, cobbled streets of Nantucket town, observing the fine grey shingled houses and the plain but prosperous inhabitants, another verse from Proverbs came to him. It was something about , “I am Wisdom, and in my right hand is riches and honor.”
The more he saw of Nantucketers, the more he felt sure that here was a group that genuinely understood and knew how to apply this kind of Wisdom.
When he turned down one street, which was known then as “Petticoat Row,” he saw a succession of neat, prosperous-looking shops and stores. Almost all were operated by Quaker businesswomen.
The sailor was so impressed with this commercial tableau that he
impulsively entered one of the shops, a kind of grocery store. He walked up to the counter and said to the plain-dressed woman behind it, “Madam, I want to know why you Nantucket Quakers seem so wise in the ways of the world.”
The Quaker woman said to him, naturally very humbly, “Well, of
course, it’s mainly because we follow the Inward Light. But,” she added, “it’s also because we eat a special kind of fish, the Wisdom Fish.”
“Wisdom Fish?” the sailor exclaimed. “What’s that? Where could I get some?”
“Friend,” the Quaker shopkeeper said, “thee is in luck. I just happen
to have one here, which I can sell thee for only twenty dollars.”
Twenty dollars was a lot of money in those days, but the sailor didn’t
hesitate. He pulled out his purse, counted out the money, and she handed him a carefully wrapped parcel, which he carried out of the shop with a triumphant smile on his face.
He returned a few minutes later, however, looking puzzled and a bit
“Excuse me, madam,” he said, setting the half-opened package on the
counter. “This is nothing but a piece of ordinary dried codfish.”
Under her modest white bonnet, the Quaker shopkeeper raised one
“Friend,” she said quietly, “thee is getting wiser already.”
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More on Quaker wisdom here.